The Prisoner and AMC's Lost Reputation

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The Prisoner and AMC's Lost Reputation

AMC's third foray into original programming was a mini-series remake of the classic 1960's cult BBC hit "The Prisoner," six episodes shown in three two-hour segments last weekend.  Now starring Ian McKellan as 2 and Jim Caviezel as 6, what was once a story about a British secret agent sent to a resort-like prison (and lots of 60's counter-cultural subtext) is now something else entirely.  I'm not going to be giving away any plot points in this review, should you decide you want to watch it, either on AMC as they re-air it until the end of the year or on DVD (out March of 2010).  If you were and are a fan of the original, you might be offended that someone has dared to remake and re-imagine this show, and that's a completely legitimate way to feel.  To an extent.  I was never a particularly big fan of the original, so I'm not off-put by the idea of this new version.  However, I was pretty off-put by the execution.

As I said, there's no need for a spoiler alert here, but the basic premise of the remake is the same as the original - a man wakes up in a secluded Village having no idea what the place is, why he is there, and how to get home.  This man, number 6, is our hero and he faces off against number 2, the man in charge of the Village.  As 2 in the remake, McKellan is quite compelling, for at least five of the six hours, and also represents one of the larger changes in ethos from the original.  In the 1960's version, the character 2 was so emblematic of the face-less organization behind the Village that he was played by a different actor each episode.  The decision to make this change is representative of the larger changes at play here, but I won't go into all that.  Mostly because I don't want to spoil it for you if you have an interest in watching and also because it's pretty difficult to actually wrangle all the various moments and conflicts in the show into something resembling what is usually referred to as plot.  Indeed, there's a lot going on here, but it very rarely comes together to make an interesting narrative; it's more like a collection of interesting moments (and some really cumbersome ones) that together don't make anything.

Part of the reason this is a shame is because this was a mini-series and part was because it was on AMC.  AMC had clearly been batting a thousand before this attempt, I don't think there's much doubt left that "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" are two of the best shows on television; both are high-minded, highly respected series and totally deserve to be.  But both shows had a difficult time drawing viewers in their first season, and this may have been because original entertainment from AMC was completely new, thus causing some ambivalence on the part of viewers to jump into something they have no idea about.  Each channel has a basic ethos that we inherently recognize and it makes for one of the last frontiers of brand recognition; how many people will give a new HBO shot because it's on HBO?  This was their chance to cement themselves, it's no co-incidence that the finale of "Mad Men" was watched by the same number of people as the premiere of "the Prisoner."  AMC had their chance at securing their place and may have blown it.

What makes this show's lack of comprehensive storytelling so much more frustrating is that it's a mini-series; when done right, a mini-series can be some of the most compelling on-screen entertainment around.  You get the rhythm and flow of episodic television combined with the compressed amount of minutes to fill thus creating a tight and driven product.  Recent examples like HBO's "Band of Brothers" and "Generation Kill," the BBC's "State of Play" and "Five Days" and the Italian piece "the Best of Youth" (if you haven't seen it, you need to) come to mind.  All these works are dynamic pieces of television whose greatest advantage is that they can take the best of both feature film and television - they are all necessarily written, shot and edited before release but aren't limited to either two hours or have to stretch to twenty-two.  In theory, a mini-series is the perfect medium for "the Prisoner" and it's the only part of it that sucks you in.  When the pace picks up at the end of the third hour and continues unabated through the fourth, it was really hard not to be on the edge of the couch.  But it wasn't good enough to maintain that, even though is still full of interesting moments and even one or two legitimately haunting elements, "the Prisoner" is ultimately a failure, and because it wastes great source material, a great form and the reputation of AMC, it is also something far worse.


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